Day 253 - John (2nd person I approached)
September 10, 2014 - Today was one of those days where I wanted to utilize the lunch hour to maximum potential. I surveyed a neighbourhood park as I walked by, and saw John getting off his bicycle and take a seat on the grass. I walked over to where he was sitting, and crouching down, told him what I was doing. He seemed unsure of my approach. I showed him The Stranger Project Facebook page, and some of the stories I’ve posted. I could see John relax a bit and he agreed to chat with me. I sat down on the grass next to him and for the next thirty minutes or so, we chatted about his life.
Born and raised in London, Ontario, John is the youngest of five children.
“I have four older sisters. My oldest sister was about sixteen when I was born. That meant I got bossed around all the time. I was always the one holding one end of the skipping rope. I had to do as I was told, they were each like another mother to me. The up side of that is I’m really good at skipping,” he said laughing.
“My parents owned a restaurant. My dad was the cook and my mother was a server. They were always at work, so my sisters looked after me a lot. We were pretty close growing up, at least while they lived at home,” he said.
“My father had cancer and died when I was ten years old,” said John.
“Everything changed then. My mother sold everything and bought a house in the suburbs. We had always lived in the downtown area. Going to school in the suburbs, I had trouble settling in. At school in the downtown core, my best friends were from Greece, Portugal and another good buddy was from China. In the suburbs, everyone was white. There was no diversity,” said John. His mother started to drink heavily, and his sisters had all moved out.
“It was really just me and my mother then, but she was always getting drunk. Then she got a boyfriend, and him and all of his friends were always drinking. He didn’t seem to like me very much. My mother started to become verbally and physically abusive. In my teens, I got bigger and filled out, and started getting into a lot of fights. I was getting into trouble for fighting. I was fighting at school. The bigger I got, it seemed the more fights I was involved in. At home my mother would beat me up, and I never once hit her back, I wouldn’t. But after she beat me, she’d call the cops and have them take me away, accusing me of being abusive. The cops got to know me, they were around at our house so often. They’d take me in and keep me over night and then let me go home in the morning, without any charges,” he said.
“It didn’t matter how big I got, as a kid spending time in jail with those men traumatized me. I was scared.”
John started drinking at an early age.
“I didn’t do drugs. I tried smoking pot, It just put me to sleep. But alcohol has been an issue for me for many years,” he said. John had a particularly bad fight with his mother one night.
“She was drunk and was giving me a pretty severe beating. I just snapped. I grabbed a beer bottle, smashed it on the kitchen counter and used the broken glass to cut my wrist,” he said, showing me the three inch scar on his right wrist.
“There was blood getting all over the kitchen, and my mother was screaming at me. The cops showed up, and then an ambulance. I went to the hospital and they stitched up the cut, and kept me in over night. One of the cops who came to hospital had seen me many times because of my mother always calling the cops on me. He told me ‘Don’t go back. There’s nothing there for you.’ He was right. There wasn't anything at home for me,” said John.
His sister offered to let him move in with her, on the condition that John continued going to school.
“I was living back downtown where I had grown up and it felt good. I never really liked school that much but I went. There was this one teacher that I did not get along with. He use to stand by the door to his classroom and when the bell rang, he would shut and lock the door. If you came late, he would pass a note under the door and you had to explain why you were late. The door was glass, and one time I saw this kid who was late, a big Portuguese guy named Joe, he totally lost his cool. He threw his bag at the door and broke the glass. He left school,” John said.
“A few months later that same teacher saw me running for the door. I was getting real close, the bell rang and he slammed the door shut and locked it. He had a look on his face like he was glad. He passed me a note that said ‘Explain why you are late.’ So I wrote ‘Because I didn’t arrive on time.’ He looked at it, then wrote something and pushed it under the door. It said ‘That is not acceptable.’ I wrote on it again and pushed it back under the door. He read it, his eyes widened and he looked at me. I had written ‘Fuck you’ on the note. I gave him the middle finger, with both hands, and that was my last day at school." John had made it to Grade eleven.
His sister found out that he wasn’t in school, and kicked him out.
“I got a job working in a garage doing oil changes and stuff. I worked in a few different places and in a few years, I had learned quite a bit about cars. I got a job working for a Mr Transmission shop. I worked for them for twenty-three years. Bought a house, had a girlfriend and we had a son as well. Our relationship lasted for about four or five years. My son lives with his mother, but we have a good relationship. He’ll be twenty-five on his next birthday,” said John. We discovered his son and I have the same birthday!
Everything was going reasonably well for John.
“I felt like I had control over my life. I had my house, a good job, a good relationship with my son. My bills were paid, all that stuff. Sure I drank lots, but I was functioning. Sometimes I’d go on a bit of a bender, but things were pretty good for years,” he said. Then the recession hit.
“My friends were loosing their jobs, and things were getting pretty scary. The place I was working at closed down. London (Ontario) was hit pretty bad. I managed to get some side work here and there and did some repairs in my own garage, but in time I was in arrears with my mortgage,” said John. He lost his house and after selling all of his tools and equipment, decided to pack his belongings into his truck and move out to the west coast.
“A number of friends suggested there was work on the west coast. “I drove the scenic route. I wasn’t in any hurry. I had my life in my truck; a small camper on the back, my dog that has been with me for years, a little bit of cash and the open road. I drove north to the top of Lake Superior, to a place called Nipigon. Looking over the lake from there, I had one of those ‘king of the world’ moments, like in the movie ‘Titanic.’ I felt free and excited and at the start of an adventure."
On his way west across the country, John stopped in Brandon, Manitoba and stayed there for a few weeks.
“In Saskatchewan, I didn’t see much so I just put the pedal to the metal and drove,” he told me, while mimicking a race car driver, and laughing.
“I stopped in Lethbridge, Alberta and spent a few weeks there. When I crossed into BC (British Columbia) and drove into Cranbrook, it reminded me a bit of London. I stayed there for about three months. I was enjoying myself, relaxing, picking up some work here and there, and sleeping in my camper on the truck,” he said.
“It was getting close to winter. I thought about going up north to see one of my sisters. I had to decide between maybe getting stuck up there for the winter with no money, or driving to Vancouver and finding a job. I had never seen the ocean, so Vancouver it was,” said John.
John has lived in Vancouver for three years now.
“I’ve had a few jobs, all working with cars, but it’s a bit harder to get a full-time permanent gig here. I don’t have a place to live. I’ve spent three years living in the camper. But I don't need much. I just have to find a new place to park every night,” he said.
Between jobs, John has done what he could to be self-sustaining, finding odd jobs and car repairs to do.
“I had to go to Welfare a few months back because I just didn't have anything for a few weeks. I was told that they looked into my files, and I still had some credits for Employment Insurance in Ontario. The guy told me I had to use that credit first before I could get any more help. That was going to take about four weeks to get through the process and paperwork. The guy, who looked like he had never gone hungry a day in his life told me that he couldn't help me and that maybe I could try a church or food bank. I was getting a little angry and I've been trying to work on that. I blurted out something about ‘How are my dog and I supposed to eat?’ The guy’s face changed and he said ‘Oh, you have a dog? Hold on then.’ He came back and gave me vouchers that would allow me to get pet food for free from some organization. They would help feed my dog, but couldn't help me.” #notastranger